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Ageism: Are You Prejudiced Against Yourself?

Do you practice sexism and racism? Your first response to this question may be a flash of anger or defensiveness. But stop and think for a minute.  Whether we want to or not, consciously or subconsciously, we make snap judgements about other people every day.  Two of the basic characteristics we utilize to make these judgements are gender and race.  The types of judgements we make based on these characteristics are influenced by our values, beliefs, experiences, and culture. Our society has been fighting prejudice and discrimination based on these characteristics for a long time.

Now consider the following question.  When you get stuck behind someone you perceive is driving too slowly, what is the first characteristic you are likely to attribute to this person?  Do the words “old” or “elderly” or “grand(ma or pa)”come to mind?  Congratulations, we can add ageism to our list of biases, and ageism doesn’t receive nearly the amount of attention of the two “isms” mentioned earlier.

What is ironic to think about, however, is that we all qualify as aging and probably most of us would say that we hope to live long lives.  Why do we persist in stereotyping older adults and holding prejudicial attitudes toward our present/ future selves?

In 2015, at the direction of a collaborative group of organizations in the field of aging, FrameWorks Institute identified public perceptions about aging and compared them to the views of some leading experts in this field. An article by Laura Robbins in the October 2015 issue of Generations (Journal of the American Society on Aging) summarized the results of this research as follows:

  • The general public associates aging with decline, and an outlook of inevitability leads to a lack of desire to pursue the development of programs and supports which would maintain and/or improve physical and emotional functioning. The experts maintain that good health and continued independence are realistic goals for older adults.
  • An attitude of “us versus them” exists in society, and older adults are seen as competition for resources. In contrast, experts point to the contributions of older adults to our social and economic productivity. The impact of these contributions has been undervalued, if it has been recognized at all.
  • Americans hold a cultural belief that an individual’s personal lifestyle and financial choices are the primary determinants of their health and happiness. Experts see additional factors as having significant influence on the experience of older adulthood, including geography, race, social supports, and public policy.

The above results were based on direct conversations between interviewers and participants in the study. Additional significant findings were gleaned from what participants in the study failed to say during interviews.  They did not appear to recognize that population demographics are changing and that older adults comprise a larger and significant percentage of our population, that social influences impact personal well-being, and that older adults do not have the same opportunities available to them as younger adults do in areas such as work, housing, social activities, and business.  This lack of recognition, coupled with the misperceptions noted above emphasizes a need for a new outlook about aging.  Without adequate acknowledgement and understanding of the issues, there will be no motivation for society to improve the current status quo for older adults.

Sadly, studies conducted by Dr. Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health have revealed that ageism leads to negative self-perceptions by older adults themselves and directly result in declines in physical health, hearing, memory, and life span. Dr. Levy, however, also determined that the opposite was true; positive self-perceptions of aging improved cognitive and physical functioning, mood, self-confidence, and added years to people’s lives.   Therefore, efforts to reduce ageism are worth pursuing, both on an individual level and for society as a whole.

Barbara Raynor, in another article from the same issue of Generations, points to the findings of Frameworks Institute as showing that ageism is hard to fight because it has “ become acceptable by default, it has become virtually imperceptible to the public’s eye”. Since our lifespans are becoming increasingly longer, it is time to open our eyes and recognize how we view and treat older adults, since one day most of us will join their ranks.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN